Drug policy 'leads users to crime'

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Drugs campaigners accused the Government yesterday of encouraging addicts to commit crimes after ministers promised that offenders would be offered fast-track treatment.

Robbers and car-jackers are among street criminals who will be offered access to drug treatment programmes within 24 hours of being released on bail or from prison. The Health minister Hazel Blears said spottingusers early and offering help would help to break the link between drugs and crime.

But the charity DrugScope said the Government was "driving" users to commit offences rather than wait up to five months for treatment. Its chief executive, Roger Howard, said: "Are we really telling people with drug problems that to get help they first have to commit a crime?"

The Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth admitted he could not rule out the possibility that some addicts might commit a crime solely to get on the fast-track system.But he denied the introduction of the 24-hour referral alongside the normal system would result in a two-tier service.

He said: "There are so many opportunities to get people into treatment.There is a system of treatment within prisons, there are access arrangements that are targeted by the drug treatment and training orders and by all kinds of circumstances."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said there was "no evidence" that addicts committed crime solely to gain access to treatment. The average waiting time for treatment is normally 6.1 weeks, she said. Ministers hope to cut that to two weeks by 2003.

Mr Ainsworth also said yesterday that compulsory drug testing of suspects in theft or drug-related offences would be extended to six new areas: Bedford; Blackpool; Doncaster; Torquay; Wirral; Wrexham and Mold in north Wales. The scheme already exists in Hackney, east London, Stafford and Cannock in Staffordshire; and Nottingham.

*Forcing offenders to meet their victims face-to-face can halve the number who go on to commit further crimes, says a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation into the "restorative cautions" used by Thames Valley Police.